Jay-Z and the ‘4:44’ Debacle

It was a slow week as far as music releases are concerned. This is probably due to artists not wanting to compete with the long-awaited, thirteenth LP from Jay-Z, 4:44. I’m disappointed to say that I’m not sure what all the buzz was going around. 4:44 marks an interesting point in hip hop; the album is where the artist Jay-Z has completely died and has been replaced by the businessman Jay-Z. As fans will know, the album was initially only released through Hov’s streaming service Tidal; a venture that seems far too risky even for him. With all the competition in streaming sites, most people don’t want to sign up for yet another one that’s virtually identical to its predecessors. In an effort to gain more users, Jay has been dropping music exclusively through his site from artists like Nicki Minaj, Daft Punk, and Beyoncé. Unfortunately, that strategy has worked out so well because Jay recently allowed other sites like iTunes and Amazon Music to stream the new LP. However, most fans still aren’t willing to dish out their personal info and cash so that they can hear the album even on the cheaper sites. I wish I could do a review of the whole album but I’m afraid I’m one of those people who can’t justify a monthly subscription to hear one artist.

What I can review is the music video that dropped on YouTube a couple days ago, The Story of OJ. The video is a clean, black and white homage to early cartoons in the 30’s and 40’s that depicted African American figures in a dehumanized light; almost primate-like. The beat comes in and if the listener isn’t aware of how Hova’s beats work, they might think their headphones aren’t plugged in all the way. For fans of Jay’s generation of hip hop, it’s a classic chopped up Nina Simone sample on top of a sharp 808 beat. There’s a crisp sentiment to the instrumental and introduction but it’s when Jigga starts rapping where I get lost.

jay-z-4-44-album-cover-2-1499114508-640x640
Courtesy of Roc Nation Records

The song, in a disconnected way, talks about the struggle of being black in a white America, at least that’s what this writer believes it’s about. On the hook, Jay points out the ways black people are different but at the end of the day they’re still black and should be proud of that. It’s some of the lines and verses that seem to have been written years apart so that they don’t match up. In the beginning, there’s talk about struggle in racism but by the end of the track Jay’s rapping about buying paintings. He even goes as far as making a borderline, anti-semitic remark (“You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it”). I understand that money and how to acquire more of it is a popular theme in Jay-Z’s music but at this point it sounds like he’s just reading chapters from an economics 101 textbook. I particularly like hearing successful people using their influence to talk about issues that matter and would love to hear more verses on contemporary civil rights when I buy 4:44 on CD but from what I’ve read on other sites, it’s more of Jay-Z struggling with rich people problems.

So what do we take away from The Story of OJ and the rest of Jay-Z’s new album? For one, there is a difference between the business of music and the art of music and Hova has clearly crossed that line into the former. From what I gathered off the one available song though, is that he’s not making hip hop exclusive, just his own music. While I can’t relate to most of his lyricism, listeners can relate to his openness and honesty, something Hip Hops lacks in when it comes to certain artists. There’s no façade around Jay’s actual music and for that I commend him, I only wish I could hear it without spending more money on it than it’s worth.

Click here to see the video for The Story of OJ.

– By Mike Metcalf

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